In their 24 years as a band, Superchunk have rarely come to be associated with sadness or gloom. They’ve certainly had their moments of wounded melancholy — 1994’s Foolish was released in the aftermath of frontman Mac McCaughan’s breakup with bassist Laura Ballance, and while it isn’t exactly Rumours, I can only imagine how uncomfortable that recording session was. Yet even in the band’s moments of angst and vulnerability — and there are many — there has always been a sense of hope that overcame the helplessness and hurt. The group’s spunky, upbeat indie rock was always the key element to put it over the top, turning bad vibes to good.
The sense that I Hate Music doesn’t follow this pattern is broadcast pretty strongly from its title alone. Superchunk’s music has always seemed such a celebratory and joyous thing; in the ‘90s, to declare “I hate music” might have been an obligatory denotation of snark. But not now. I Hate Music, Superchunk’s tenth album, is dedicated to David Doernberg, filmmaker and friend of the band, who died in 2012 after a battle with cancer. And the loss hangs heavy over the album; on lead single “Me & You and Jackie Mittoo,” one of the most Superchunk-y songs here, McCaughan puts the title phrase in proper context: “I hate music/ What is it worth?/ Can’t bring anyone back to this earth.”
Grief and loss seep through the fabric of the entirety of the album, and a cursory survey of song titles — “Void,” “What Can We Do,” “Breaking Down,” “Staying Home” — reads like a sequence of those very stages of grief. Yet the band tackles a complicated, difficult subject in the best way that they can, merely by being true to their musical identity. Superchunk is still unquestionably Superchunk, but they don’t bounce and spring with the same energy they had in their twenties. They’re playing with more nuanced, muted palettes this time around, much as they have since 2010’s Majesty Shredding (or even 2001’s Here’s to Shutting Up), and it feels as much a natural extension of their essence as anything they’ve ever done, but of course, with a much heavier heart.
McCaughan’s reflections run from pleas for things that will never be on “Your Theme” (“Oh what I’d do/ To waste an afternoon with you”), to asking questions he knows the answer to on “FOH” (“Tell me, are you coming around?/ When are you coming around?”), to desperately holding on to what won’t stay on “What Can We Do” (“I’ll say I love you, I won’t say goodbye”). So much of the album comes from a place of real sadness that, were it not occasionally broken up by moments of explosive energy, it might almost be too painful to revisit. But Superchunk isn’t necessarily here to bum out their audience, and just as they always have, they rock out — on the rumbling waltz of “Void,” on the minute-long punk blast of “Staying Home,” and on the infectious pop of “Breaking Down.” And as usual, those moments are uniformly awesome.
For anyone who has followed Superchunk since the beginning, it should come as very little surprise that the North Carolina indie rockers have both matured so gracefully and have come to treat heavy topics in their music so eloquently. Still, it hits pretty hard on I Hate Music, even if the path to getting here set them up to pull it off so perfectly. And that’s more or less what grief does — as much as you prepare yourself for the worst, you never expect it to hurt as much as it does. It’s an inescapable aspect of I Hate Music. And yet, so are warmth, joy and genuine emotion — qualities that can make the all-important difference between mourning and healing.